Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is the process of electrically stimulating an individual’s vagus nerve via a surgically implanted pulse generator.
The device delivers electrical pulses to a person’s vagus nerve. This may help treat several conditions, including epilepsy, depression, and gastrointestinal diseases.
Keep reading to learn more about the function of the vagus nerve, the benefits of VNS, and the potential risks and side effects.
The nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is commonly referred to as the rest-and-digest system because it regulates bodily functions while a person is at rest. It delivers messages to a person’s brain from their digestive system and organs such as their lungs, heart, and liver.
The vagus nerve controls several organ functions, including digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate. It is responsible for vasomotor activity and reflexes such as:
The vagus nerve also regulates vocalization, mood, and immunity. It influences sensory functions in a person’s ears, sinuses, and esophagus as well.
VNS involves a pulse generator inserted under a person’s skin on their chest. The implantable device, which is similar to a pacemaker, delivers regular electrical pulses to their brain via the vagus nerve. For example, a device may be programmed to stimulate for 30 seconds every 5 minutes.
It is possible to provide additional stimulation by placing the provided magnet over the pulse generator.
Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga, and medication can influence vagus nerve activity, increasing its ability to relieve anxiety and mood-related symptoms.
Ways to naturally stimulate the vagus nerve include:
- loudly gargling with water
- om or mantra chanting
- showering with cold water
- applying ice water to the face
- deep breathing exercises
VNS can improve an individual’s physical health and can offer benefits for several conditions. The treatment has a healing effect on a person’s body due to its ability to promote relaxation and reduce inflammation. People most commonly use VNS to treat epilepsy and depression.
VNS commonly treats neurological conditions such as epilepsy, often in conjunction with anti-epileptic drugs. VNS may minimize atypical electrical brain activity leading to seizures. This may reduce the frequency, severity, and length of a person’s seizures. However, the treatment may take up to 2 years to work.
For people with epilepsy, VNS may also help improve post-seizure recovery, improve overall well-being, and boost mood, alertness, and cognition.
VNS has a positive effect on a person’s mental health and may treat chronic treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The vagus nerve may influence somatic and cognitive symptoms of conditions associated with stress. Stimulation may regulate people’s emotions, helping them feel calm, clear, and compassionate.
Reducing blood pressure, lowering heart rate, and boosting immunity
According to a
Additionally, VNS may reduce pain from fibromyalgia and migraine episodes. More high-quality research is needed to expand upon these findings.
In general, VNS is safe for most people. However, there are potential risks and side effects to consider. Normally, the most
Implantation surgery involves risks and complications such as pain, infection, and breathing difficulties. It can also cause vocal cord paralysis and injury to a person’s vagus nerve and surrounding nerves.
Possible risks and side effects of VNS include:
- general pain
- ear, throat, or chest pain
- tingling in the throat or neck
- swallowing concerns
- changes in voice or speech
- muscle movements or twitching
- nausea or vomiting
- prickling or tingling sensation of the skin
Less common side effects of VNS include:
- weight loss
- reduced exercise tolerance
- snoring and apnea during sleep
- facial flushing
If a person experiences side effects during or after VNS, they may need to reduce the stimulation. A person with a VNS device should speak with their doctor before having medical tests such as MRI scans.
A person should contact a healthcare professional right away if they experience:
- constant hoarseness
- painful or irregular stimulation
- consciousness changes, such as excessive sleepiness
- stimulation that causes heart rate changes or choking, breathing, or swallowing complications
- new or strange changes connected to stimulation
- a pulse generator that is not working correctly
VNS is not suitable for people with a history of:
The vagus nerve influences several bodily functions, including digestion, heart rate, and body temperature.
VNS uses an implantable device to deliver regular electrical pulses from a person’s vagus nerve to their brain.
It helps improve a person’s overall well-being and treats a variety of conditions, including epilepsy, depression, and rheumatoid arthritis.